How to Have an Awesome Holiday

pumpkin pie

1. Be Thankful

This seems like a no-brainer, right? But it’s not. At least, not for me.

When you’ve got time off from work, your family is in town, and you’re in a good mood, it can be easy to feel thankful. Which is awesome. So why not express that? Say it out loud.

Tell your family how awesome they are. Tell your spouse and kids how thankful you are for your family and this season of life.

2. Ask Your Spouse What is Most Important For Them This Week

I think we all know that a few days with a ton of food and a ton of family isn’t always a recipe for joy. Sometimes the holiday vacation is actually more work than regular life.

So, try this before you and your family head in to an action-packed holiday. Ask your spouse what it is that’s important for them this week. Then, no matter how busy or crazy the holiday may be, you and your spouse can fight for each other to make sure you each get to experience something that’s most important to you.

3. Use This Pumpkin Pie recipe

Seriously. It’s fantastic.

And, don’t tell anyone, but if you don’t want to use actual pumpkin glop from the pumpkin, canned pumpkin will usually do just fine.

4. Do Whatever Meathead Says

Want to make the most incredible turkey you’ve ever made? Just to go and do what Meathead says.

5. Read a Fiction Book

You know what else makes for a good holiday? A good book. Most days I’m reading non-fiction, but when I’m on vacation I read fiction.

I’m totally a fan of Tom Clancy and other good spy-thriller types of novels. (What?) Over the weekend I began reading Transfer of Power, by Vince Flynn.

I’m not yet sure if I like it. The book’s opening paragraph felt a bit overwritten to me (a fine line to walk with books like this where details and nuance not only set the scene but can play a huge role in plot development.) However, by the end of the first chapter I already felt connected with two of the main characters.

A few other favorite reads:

6. Get Your Christmas Jams From Pandora

If you think it’s too early for christmas music, you’re weird.

For the best stream of Christmas music that doesn’t suck, start a new Pandora radio station built on the classic 1965 album, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Where Vince Guaraldi and his trio do some great Christmas songs. From there Pandora does the rest, and you get hours and hours of instrumental, jazzy Christmas tunes.

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P.S. Thank You, Dear Reader

As I look ahead to the remaining weeks of 2015 and on in to the next year, I feel extremely excited. For one, the free class we’re doing next month is going to be fantastic, and my gut tells me that 2016 is going to be a lot of fun.

I’ve been at this full-time blogging racket for almost five years now. And that is thanks entirely to you, dear reader.

So, please allow me to take my own advice (see #1 above), and say out loud what it is that I’m thankful for: You.

And I mean it!

I am incredibly thankful that you would show up and read my dorky articles and my half-formed ideas. Some of you have been reading this site for years. Amazing! And not only that, you are generous enough to support my work so I can keep on writing dorky articles — something I do not take lightly.

Have a very happy Thanksgiving!

— Shawn

Announcing The Elements of Focus (A Free Video Class)

I’m doing something crazy. And it’s going to be a lot of fun…

With the new year just around the corner, you’re thinking about what you want to do better in 2016. As you should. You have incredible things to create. You have something valuable to share with the world. You have friends and family.

Your best work, your best ideas, and your best relationships are all still ahead of you.

And that’s where The Elements of Focus comes in.

The Elements of Focus is a free video class that begins on December 13, 2015.

It will be fun, personal, and to the point. No hype and no tricks. Just a handful of topics (16 to be exact) that I believe are most important to meaningful productivity and doing our best creative work.

You should absolutely sign up for the class. And tell your friends to sign up too!

Check out the website for the class and sign up for free, right here:

“The Fight To Stay Creative” (Video of My Talk from Circles Conference)

This is my talk from the 2015 Circles Conference in Dallas, Texas.

Circles is an absolutely fantastic event, and it was such an honor to go. I was fortunate enough to be the very first speaker. Which meant two things: Getting to go first meant that once my talk was done, I was free to enjoy the rest of the conference without any pre-talk nerves or jitters.

It also meant that I had the unique privilege of setting the tone for the event. I spent months and months thinking about the one thing I wanted to convey to this audience of creative professionals. If I were in their seats, what would be the most helpful and encouraging takeaway?

My talk was titled “The Fight to Stay Creative”, and it was a modified and improved (if I do say so myself) version of this blog post.

In my short talk I share my story of how I quit my job to blog for a living; the fears and challenges I’ve faced in launching a half-dozen websites and products over the past 5 years; and what I believe are the most important factors that help us to do our best creative work every day.

I am extremely happy with the talk. It feels like this is a summation of my “message” — the convergence of diligence and focus with creativity and fun.

It’s all about doing our best creative work. And, as you learn in the video, doing our best creative work is a fight.

* * *

If you like this video, may I humbly suggest you sign up for my newsletter? There are thousands of others signed up, and every week I send out helpful articles, tips, and more to help you level up your creativity and focus. It’s an awesome newsletter for awesome people.

On Dialing Down, Saying “No”, and Making Time

In addition to my own efforts to dial down and re-focus on doing the things which are most important and most enjoyable to me, I’ve come across a handful of other folks doing the same.

Below are a few links and quotes I hope you find useful.

CGP Grey, in his article “Dialing Down”:

“I have less to do. Why do I still feel overwhelmed? Why is it taking me longer to get less done?” I paused and listened and found another kind of background noise in my brain that had been increasing, ever so slowly, since I became self-employed a few years ago. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it ‘The Internet’ but it’s a broader than that: it’s the rise of all the digital vectors of information delivery pointed at me.

As a result, Grey is taking a month off from podcast listening, RSS, YouTube subscriptions, Hacker News, and more.

I love this line:

I firmly believe that boredom is good for brain health, and I’m banishing podcasts for the month from my phone to bring boredom back into my life.

* * *

Tim Ferriss is on a similar “attention vacation”. He is giving up VC investing so he can focus more on writing. Just like with Grey’s article above, it’s encouraging to learn about the “why” behind the choice.

There are a lot of nuggets of wisdom in Ferriss’ article. Such as:

Are you fooling yourself with a plan for moderation?

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. – Richard P. Feynman

Where in your life are you good at moderation? Where are you an all-or-nothing type? Where do you lack a shut-off switch? It pays to know thyself.


If you’re suffering from a feeling of overwhelm, it might be useful to ask yourself two questions:

  • In the midst of overwhelm, is life not showing me exactly what I should subtract?
  • Am I having a breakdown or a breakthrough?

* * *

Third, is Cal Newport — always the advocate for being intentional about doing work that matters. In Newport’s article, he simply shares about how he spends a few hours per week organizing the rest of his week:

It’s hard work figuring out how to make a productive schedule come together: a goal that requires protecting long stretches of speculative deep thinking while keeping progress alive on long term projects and dispatching the small things fast enough to avoid trouble (but not so fast that the deep stretches fragment).

It’s true that many people approach their days with flexibility, perhaps hunkering down when an immediate deadline looms, but otherwise letting their reactions to input drive the agenda. But I want to emphasize that there’s another group of us who take our time really seriously, and aren’t afraid to spend hours figuring out how best to invest it.

* * *

One last thought on the importance of dialing down. Below is an adapted excerpt from part of Day 37 of The focus Course where we talk about finding boredom and creating margin for thought.

I’ve had an iPhone since the beginning. It’s my favorite gadget of all time. And for the past 8 years this thing has pretty much never been more than an arm’s distance away.

It’s not so easy to be bored anymore. You have to choose to be bored. It used to be that boredom chose you — you were somewhere and you were waiting and there was nothing to do and you were bored. Now, you’re never bored. You can see pictures of some stranger surfing on the other side of the world, or get a live video stream of someone’s hike over Tokyo. This stuff is amazing.

But it means we have to be proactive about our boredom and down time. It means we have to be intentional about creating margin for thought. If 100% of our down time is filled with passive entertainment and bits of information, then when does our mind have a chance to be calm? When do we have a moment to think without needing to think?

As we talked about during Day 5, the little moments of mental down time can do wonders for our long-term ability to create, problem solve, and do great work. Yet, so often we run from boredom at every turn and fill up every spare moment with some sort of pacifier. We need chunks of time where our minds can rest.

In my day, when I’m feeling restless or I find myself bouncing around between inboxes, I just stop and decide that it’s time for a break. I get up and go walk around for a bit. Or I lay down on my couch and listen to what my mind and imagination have to say.

My mind needs space. Your mind needs space, too. This space to think and breath could also be called margin.

In his book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson M.D., describes margin as this:

Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.

Margin is the opposite of overload. If we are overloaded we have no margin. Most people are not quite sure when they pass from margin to overload. Threshold points are not easily measurable and are also different for different people in different circumstances. We don’t want to be under-achievers (heaven forbid!), so we fill our schedules uncritically. Options are as attractive as they are numerous, and we overbook.

Swenson is mostly talking about time-management. However, the idea of margin for our thoughts is prevalent as well — our minds need space to breathe and room to think.

* * *

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article: take ownership of your time and attention. When you do, so much changes for the better.

How I Stay Sane When Life Feels Extra Busy

Fall is by far and away my favorite time of year. There’s awesome about the combination of crisp weather, a lit candle, a hot drink, and a blank page to write on.

And here we are. It’s November! Except I’m not ready for it.

I feel as if I’m standing at the entrance to a tunnel and I can see 2016 coming down the track. But it’s moving too quickly for me and I feel unprepared and, honestly, a little bit anxious.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the holiday season is busy enough in its own right. My wife and I will be hosting family here in Kansas City for the former, and we’ll be driving to Colorado for the latter. I can’t wait.

But, in addition to the holidays and family time, November and December are the two biggest months of the year for Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup. Our website traffic and revenue during these months will be roughly 3 times that of any other month of the year. And we’re doing all we can to make the most of it. Over on Tools & Toys we just put up our annual Christmas Catalog post, and we also have a massive photography guide that is coming out soon. And over on The Sweet Setup we’re just finishing up a new ebook that we expect to publish in a week from now.

On top of that, I am making some huge improvements to The Focus Course for a “re-launch” of the course that will go live on January 1. Later this month I’m going back to the studio to record 50 new videos. 40 of them are for the Focus Course and 10 of them will be for a new training series I’m working on — kind of like an introduction to the Focus Course.

I’m sharing all this because you probably feel in a similar situation.

  • You’ve got several work-related projects (all of which are important).
  • You’ve got some personal projects (all of which you really want to make progress on).
  • You’ve got several books you want to read (all of which look awesome).
  • And you want to spend as much time with your spouse and kids as possible (especially with the holidays coming up).

You feel the tug of wanting to work on too many things at once and not knowing which to choose. This in and of itself can be stressful. It also can lead to procrastination and paralysis due to uncertainty and indecisiveness, which just compounds the issue even further.

“How am I supposed to get all this done?” You’re asking.

That is a great question. And you’re not the only one asking it.

By far and away, one of the most common challenges I hear from people is their challenge of having too much to do. Too many spinning plates. Too many important tasks. Too many areas of responsibility.

For me, I know that this current November and December are going to be an intense couple of months. It’s a perfect storm of holidays, family, and business opportunities. I don’t mind putting in extra hours to get all the work done now, because I know that this is not the norm for me. Come January and February, my workload will return to normal. This is the ebb and flow of work.

Sometimes, however, the overwhelming business is a sign that something’s broken. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask yourself if it’s because you’re on the edge of doing something awesome or is it life showing you that something needs to be cut out.

  • If the latter — you’re overwhelmed and you know something’s got to give — then do this: Take inventory of where you’re spending the bulk of your time and energy (not where you wish you were spending it, but where you’re actually spending it). Now ask yourself what can be subtracted to give your calendar, your mind, and your emotions some breathing room.

  • If the former — if you’re on the edge of breakthrough in a project — then sometimes the answer is to keep working and just hold on and persevere for the season. But don’t persevere to the detriment your health and relationships.

When you’re in an intense and busy season, what’s important is to keep your sanity and health. This way you ensure that you are actually making progress every day and not just suffering under the weight of being busy. This will also help ensure that when the busy season is over, you don’t hit a wall and get sick or depressed.

When life is at its busiest, is when it’s all the more important to be overly diligent and intentional with how you spend your time.

That said, here’s how I’m staying focused in my busy season of life:

  1. Making sure my day is filled with intentional work. Step one is knowing what to do and having a plan of when I’m going to do it. This is so important, that I’ve actually been spending more time managing my time. The days can so quickly get away from me that I’m upping my intentionality to make sure my daily and weekly schedule is providing me with the time I need to do the most important work.

    If I’m mostly in a reactive state — giving my attention primarily to the incoming inboxes of email and Twitter — then chances are I’m wasting time. Which is why I’ve been spending even less time than usual on email and Twitter…

  2. Dialing back on Twitter usage. I love Twitter. It’s a great place for conversations, dialog, and finding cool stuff. But it’s not where I do my aforementioned most important work.

    Which is why, for the past month, I’ve been using Buffer and Edgar as tools to help me post to Twitter. And then I’ve been setting aside time to jump in and reply to any conversations or questions. So far it’s been working out well as a way for me to stay engaged and active on Twitter while not getting too easily sucked in to the Black hole of the real time web and YouTube fail compilations.

    For me, this is just about the only “noisy and distracting area” that I have left to dial back. I don’t read the news. I don’t have Facebook. And I’ve hit pause on my RSS reading while I work my way through my current stack of books (which now includes 3 more since I took that picture).

  3. My “Now” Page. This is something I picked up from Derek Sivers, who created a page on his website, simply titled “Now”. On there he listed out the few things he is most focused on. Not just work-things, but life, hobbies, etc. It serves as a personal reminder to him about where he wants to be focusing his time as well as a public statement to others about what he’s doing (and what he’s not doing).

    I love this idea. I’m a big proponent of what I call meaningful productivity. Which just means you’re actually spending your time doing the things that you want to do. The problem is that most of us spend our time doing what we don’t want to do — usually just by default. We forget, we’re tired, or whatever, and so we just default into something (such as mindless email checking) that is not on our “now” list. The Now page can serve as a plumb line for you.

    And the other cool thing about having a publicly available “Now” page is that it gives a sense of accountability. You’ve told the world what’s important to you and how you’re spending your time, and now you need to keep that commitment.

  4. Recognizing progress. This is huge. When you’re down in the thick of it, one of the best ways to keep your momentum going is to recognize and celebrate the progress you make each day. I use Day One because it’s awesome. And at the end of the day I’ll write down the small wins from my day.

  5. Health. This is the one that goes out the window the fastest for me. Which is unfortunate, because it’s also the one that matters the most. A good night sleep, a diet that gives you energy, and some regular out-and-about exercise is so good for you.

All these things come together to help give space to think, to breath, and to focus on doing what’s most important.

But there’s more to it than just another listicle of tips and tricks and hacks for being awesome.

It ultimately comes down to taking ownership of your time and attention.

If you regularly find that you’re not able to do your best work in this season of life, ask yourself whose fault that is. Sometimes things are outside of our control. But more often than not, there is something we can do about it.

The person who is frustrated at how long it’s taking to write their book, yet is watching a few hours of television every day, may want to reconsider how they’re spending their evening.

When you take ownership of your time and attention, everything changes. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

* * *

And I would be remiss if I didn’t take a chance to mention just how helpful and powerful The Focus Course can be in this area.

I designed the Focus Course to guide you along a simple path that starts out fun and easy and then builds into something resulting in deep and lasting change. The course enables you to experience deep satisfaction in work and in life by making meaningful progress every day to accomplish that which is most important.

If what I’ve written about today hits home for you, but you don’t know where to start… then start here.

Relevancy vs. Recency

My friend, Sean McCabe, recently published a podcast episode talking about how to send valuable and and relevant emails.

But the show was about much more than just email.

For me, the most valuable takeaway from Sean’s podcast was this:

“Relevancy is more important than recency.”

The context was that with email, what makes it so powerful is not the ability to send a recent message to 1,000 people right now. Rather, that you can send one single relevant message to one person at just the right time.

Sean posted his show almost a month ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It pairs perfectly with another idea I’ve been chewing on: a business model that (surprise!) is based on providing the most amount of value to the most amount of people.

Which begs the question: What’s more valuable for your content: relevancy or recency?

Put another way, is the relevance of your content based on the content itself or the timestamp?

The Bias Toward “Fresh”

Be careful when you presuppose that the newer something is, the more relevant it is. While it’s true for many news sources, it’s not true of all content. Not even all the content published on the Web.

Our bias toward fresh content is a huge part of why we prefer Twitter over books, and TL;DR over long-form.

The real-time web is awesome, but it’s not the only source of information. Especially not so if we’re seeking to gain a deep understanding of a topic and expand our knowledge in an area.

Twitter is fine in its own right, but it’s a mighty bloodless substitute for learning.

Relevancy vs Recency for you, the reader

Last month I read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

The book is not new — it’s three years old. But the contents in it were exactly what I needed to hear right now.

There were two huge takeaways from the book that gave me some clarity and insight into the exact challenges I’m facing right now in my business. Despite the fact that the contents of the book were not new, they were still very relevant.

For a book, we don’t really think too much about new-ness equating to relevancy. In fact, a three-year-old book is still pretty new. But for the (real-time) web, three years sounds like an eternity. When we go to a website, we want to know what is fresh and new — we assume that the newer it is the more relevant it is.

Obviously for a news website such as CNN, et al., the newest content is almost always the most relevant. But what about for the millions of other sites that don’t publish news? That are writing and publishing things without a shelf life?

hen you recommend a book, you don’t say “it’s old, but still good”. Yet, if you recommend an old website article (and by old I mean anything not written in the pas 12 months), it’s not uncommon to mention that it wasn’t written in the past 24 hours.

We have so many people writing incredible things on the web — it’s time to stop using the time stamp as the primary qualifier for relevancy.

And, for those of us who are creating great content for the web, it’s time to think more about how we can keep that content relevant for months and years to come.

Relevancy vs Recency for you, the writer

Long-time readers of will know that my pattern for writing has long been about “recency.”

The long-form software and hardware reviews I used to write were primarily valuable because of how “fresh” they were. And while many of those reviews still stand today, it’s only because they’re interesting and they can serve as a point of reference. They are’t exactly helping solve any problems or challenges you’re facing right now (that is, unless you’re considering buying a used G4 PowerBook.)

One down side to a Recency-Over-Relevancy mindset when it comes to content production is that it means much of what you create has a very short shelf life.

Consider if the content model you’re building on is focused on “new-ness.” If so, then it means that if you don’t have something recent, you don’t have anything at all.

I know this because it’s exactly how I approached the writing here on for the first six years. This website started in 2007 as a place where I could write about technology news.

But I’ve realized that “new-ness” is not the long-term game I want to play here. Even on Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup, we are working to build a content strategy that’s not primarily dependent on “new-ness”. (But I’ll share more bout that another day.)

* * *

The question I continue to re-visit is this: What can I do that will be the most helpful and provide the most value to you, the reader?

To peel the curtain back just al little bit, I know that the answer to that question is something far beyond some weekly emails, podcast episodes, and blog posts.

While the regular writing and podcasting I’m doing here is a critical component that keeps things moving, there are a LOT of past articles I’ve written and podcast episodes I’ve recorded that are still immensely valuable. Yet they’re buried underneath that reverse waterfall.

Someone new to this site is probably interested in what’s happening right now, but they are also likely to find immense value in the articles I’ve already written. Such as the those from earlier this summer regarding productivity and diligence, or the ones from last year about sweating the details in our work.

While I don’t have anything firmly in the works, yet, I do have a few ideas about what I could do to improve the relevancy of my content in a way that doesn’t put recency as the primary metric.

Some ideas include:

  • A redesign of the website that puts less emphasis on the reverse-waterfall blog and more emphasis on the most valuable content I’ve produced, regardless of when it was published.
  • Going through the archives here on and putting together certain posts and articles into a series around specific topics (such as writing, creativity, productivity, workflows, etc.)
  • Using the awesomeness of ConvertKit to offer training and relevant content “on-boarding” via email.

Basically, I’m looking at better ways of packaging and presenting all of my writing and podcasting into products and training materials (both free and paid) that can be as valuable as possible to you regardless of if you’ve been a long-time reader or this is the first article you’ve read of mine.

* * *

To wrap this up, I want to thank all of you who support this site, show up to read, listen to the podcast, and share your thoughts and feedback. Many of you are brand new. (Welcome!) And many more of you have been around for months and years.

Thanks for reading. And thanks for letting me learn and iterate in public. I think it’s more fun that way, and I hope you do, too.

You are awesome.

— Shawn

P.S. If you want to stay in the loop with what I’m working on, you should join The Fight Spot newsletter.


Just punch in your info below to get on the list.

And as my way of saying thank you, I’ll send you my popular ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, for free.

Survey Says…

Last week I asked you what your biggest challenge was.

The question was in the form of a very simple, 4-option survey where you just clicked the statement that sounded most true right now.

The statements were:

  • “I want to do better creative work.”
  • “I’m trying to be more focused with my time and energy.”
  • “I’m trying to build and serve my audience.”
  • “I want to improve my tools and workflows.”

The response to this “survey” surprised me. Though it probably shouldn’t have.

Long-time readers of the site no doubt remember when I primarily wrote about the latest apps and gadgets.

However, over the past year I’ve been primarily writing and podcasting about focus.

In fact, that shift happened on July 28, 2014. That’s the day I began a new topical series on my podcast, Shawn Today. The topics were components of a focused life, getting a life vision, planning your day, making lifestyle changes to support your goals, having deep personal integrity related to your own commitments, the tyranny of the urgent, and more.

Those podcast episodes were the beginning of my work to build The Focus Course. And their content overflowed into the writing and podcasting I’ve been doing on the Weekly Briefly and here on on

I guess it should have come as no surprise that when I asked you what your biggest challenge is right now, the overwhelming response was this:

“I’m trying to be more focused with my time and energy.”

Here’s a chart showing the breakdown of responses to the survey:

survey results

  • 12-percent of you are interested in audience building.
  • 18-percent of you want to improve your tools and workflows.
  • 23-percent of you want to do better creative work.
  • 46-percent of you want to be more focused with your time and energy.

These results are exciting to me because the challenge of being more focused with our time and energy is something I’m extremely passionate about.

However, it’s also clear to me that I could be doing a MUCH better job helping you find solutions and make meaningful progress in these areas.

That said, I already have several things in mind for exactly how to better help you with focus (aside from the obvious solution of The Focus Course itself). Alas, the new ideas still need some ground work, so that is something which will have to wait for a future post.

What’s Your Biggest Challenge?

I have a quick question for you:

What’s one of the biggest challenges you’re facing right now?

You can answer by clicking the link that feels most important to you right now:

“I want to do better creative work.”

“I’m trying to be more focused with my time and energy.”

“I’m trying to build and serve my audience.”

“I want to improve my tools and workflows.”

The reason I ask is because I want to help provide the resources, momentum, and courage you need to make meaningful progress in the areas of life that matter.

If you’re curious, I’m tracking the click-throughs on the links above. The way you “vote” for your biggest challenge is by clicking on it. Your feedback will give me insight about what to focus on in order to best help you.

Plus… As my way of saying thank you, once you click through you’ll discover that I’ve already hand-picked a couple of resources I believe can help you right now with the respective challenge you’re facing.

So don’t be chicken; click on one of the options up above.

And as always, thanks for reading and thanks for being awesome!

— Shawn

The Awareness Building Class

Awareness Building Class

My friend Mike Vardy and I just released a new product we’ve been working on for the past several weeks: The Awareness Building Class

In short, The Awareness Building Class is a 5-part series of audio teachings filled with real-life stories and actionable advice to help you stop guessing and start going.

Mike and I designed the class to go hand-in-hand with The Focus Course. All 5 of the Class modules fit in line with the key themes of The Focus Course, such as clarity, action, integrity, productivity, and meaning.

Listening to the Awareness Building Class and going through its workbook will complement the work you do in The Focus Course by giving you an additional layer of context and real-life examples from Mike and I related to the content and the assignments found within the Focus Course.

The Awareness Building Class includes

  • 5 Audio sessions (each between 30–45 minutes) on the topics of Clarity, Confidence, Integrity, Self-Awareness, and Harmony.
  • A PDF workbook for each session with highlights, key takeaways, and action items.
  • Professionally edited transcriptions of all the audio.

The Class Topics

Clarity: What it is, how it relates to your work, your personal life, your hobbies, your time, your finances, and more.

Confidence: How Confidence relates to productivity, why it’s critical for doing your best work, how a lack of confidence is a form of Resistance, and more.

Integrity: A personal favorite, for this session we discuss Integrity’s vital role related to motivation and procrastination.

Self-Awareness: Self-Awareness is about understanding our Vision, Values, Most important relationships, Priorities, Goals (the why behind them), our Capacity, and our Default behaviors.

Harmony: Re-defining the idea of “work/life balance” and bringing all the areas of our life together into something where the sum is greater than the individual parts.

* * *

Because the Awareness Building Class has been designed to go hand-in-hand with The Focus Course, the class is available for FREE to everyone who signs up for The Focus Course between now and October 26. (Afterward, the class will only be available as a $79 stand-alone product.)

P.S. For those of you who are already Focus Course members: check your email. I believe in treating new customers and past customers equally awesome-ly. So everyone who is already a Focus Course member gets the class for free as well.

Coming Soon: The Awareness Building Class

About a month ago I came across this 99u video of Cal Newport talking about skill versus passion. What he had to say really struck home for me. Particularly his thoughts on what he calls Deep Work.

If you’ve read the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, what Newport calls Deep Work in his 99u video he calls Intentional Practice in his book.

And, it’s not an entirely new idea. Deep Work / Intentional Practice is similar to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow.

What I love about Newport’s ideas on Deep Work is how he focuses it on the “knowledge worker”. I’ve read much about intentional practice and finding flow and most people discuss how it relates to athletes and musicians. But not many talk about how it relates to designers, writers, photographers, and entrepreneurs.

If you’re a writer, business owner, designer, freelancer, or podcaster, what does intentional practice look like for you?

Not sure? Don’t worry. You’re not alone…

In an article about Deep Work, Newport states that most knowledge workers are bad at working. Consider this…

Chess players know how to study chess, practice their skills, and systematically improve their game.

Musicians know how to study, practice, and systematically improve their skills with their instrument.

Athletes have a daily routine for systematic strength building and skill development.

But knowledge workers? Well, we spend most of our day checking email. D’oh!

* * *

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of folks who’ve written about the value of intentional practice / deep work. Not everyone uses the same language, but we’re all trying to solve the same issue…

You’ve got Csikszentmihalyi’s studies on Flow, Newport’s proposals for Deep Work, George Leonard’s keys to Mastery, Steven Pressfield’s writings about Resistance, Greg McKeown’s advice for Essentialism, Gary Keller’s action plan to focus on The One Thing, Charles Duhigg’s writings on habits, and Seth Godin’s advice to the Linchpins. To name a few.

In essence, the idea is that you need focused, uninterrupted time every day to do work that is both important and difficult.

Let’s say that again. You need…

Focused time.
Un-Interrupted Time.
Every Day.
Doing Important Work.
Doing Difficult Work.

If you spend all your day doing shallow work (meetings, emails, social networks, casual blog reading) then you’ll never build up your knowledge skill. You’ll never progress as a knowledge worker. You’ll never get breakthrough in your work.

As someone who writes for a living, I agree wholeheartedly.

By far and away, the most important time of my day is when I’m writing. And the most rewarding times of my day have been those when I am focused on an idea or topic and challenging myself to find a solution to a problem.

If I had to give one single piece of advice related to what I call Meaningful Productivity it would be this:

Make a routine of showing up every day to do your most important work.

It feels novel to focus on the “show up every day” part. But what about the “most important work” part?

Do you know what your most important work is?

What is the one thing that, if done today, will move the needle forward in an area of your life or business that matters deeply to you right now?

One of the most significant challenges when it comes to finding flow every day is knowing what to do. It’s one thing to show up. It’s another thing to make the most of your time.

If you have a plan for your Deep Work then it will remove a significant layer of activation energy.

This is why I always write out tomorrow’s most important task before I call it quits for the day. So that when I begin my day, the plan of action has already been established.

And this brings us to something I want to share with you…

Awareness Building Class

The Awareness Building Class

Next Tuesday, October 20th, my friend Mike Vardy and I are launching something awesome.

Mike is a good friend of mine. He is also a writer, speaker, and productivity strategist.

Mike was one of the small handful of people I personally reached out to when enlisting help and feedback as I was building The Focus Course earlier this year.

Since launching The Focus Course a few months ago, the feedback has been far beyond what I expected. And thus I have found myself putting more and more time and energy into making the course even better.

(For example, in a few weeks I’m going back to the studio to record 40 additional videos to accompany the course. I’m also in the process of developing a coaching curriculum based on the 40-day progression of the Course.)

Something else I’m doing to make the Course even better is what Mike and I have been working on…

The Awareness Building Class.

It’s a 5-part series of audio teachings filled with real-life stories and actionable advice to help you stop guessing and start going.

What’s nifty about The Awareness Building Class is that it’s been strategically designed to go side-by-side with The Focus Course.

All 5 of the Class sessions fit in line with the key themes of The Focus Course — such as clarity, action, integrity, productivity, and meaning.

And here’s what’s even MORE cool:

The Class will be available FOR FREE to everyone who signs up for The Focus Course before October 26.

After the 26th, the Awareness Building Class will be available as a standalone product for $79.

All of you who have already signed up for the Focus Course: you’ll also get the Awareness Building Class for free (I believe in treating yesterday’s customers just as good as today’s).

You can read more about the Awareness Building Class right here.

The Apple Watch Apps I Use

Getting the Apple Watch, I didn’t know what to expect.

I’ve worn a watch for years. In part because I often want to know what time it is, but also because it’s one more “barrier” to keep me from pulling out my iPhone.

Do you ever do this? Do you pull your iPhone out of your pocket in order to check the time. But before you know it, you’ve already unlocked the thing and you’re half-way through your Twitter timeline before you realize what you’re doing? And then you don’t even remember what time it is (which was the whole reason you got your phone out in the first place)?

I used to (still often do, alas) do that all the time. And it drives me nuts. I want to be more intentional about when I’m going to mindlessly check twitter.

Earlier this spring, after having the Apple Watch for just a week, I wrote about how it was Just Smart Enough.

So, several months in with the Apple Watch. Do I still wear it? Is it still “just smart enough?” How do I use it? Has Apple Watch changed my life and will I ever be the same?

The short answer to those questions is that yes, I still wear my Watch every day, and I think it’s fantastic and convenient and helpful. But if I didn’t have it, I would still get by just fine.

The longer answer to those questions is below…

The Main Complications

The vast majority of how I use my watch is to tell time, check the current temperature, or set a timer.

In fact, being able to see the weather on my wrist at a glance is awesome. It sounds so simple, but, it’s the little things in life, you know?

The Apps I Don’t Use

I thought I’d start off by sharing the apps I don’t use.

The promise of being able to check email, calendars, and stocks, and to answer phone calls from your watch are cool. But for me, I don’t want the Watch to replace my iPhone. I want the Watch to help me stay connected in the ways that are important to me, and allow me to use my phone less frequently.

Some of the apps I don’t use include email, the phone, (tip) calculator, podcasts, the Camera, OmniFocus, and Twitter.

Of course, now that I’ve got the iPhone 6s Plus (a.k.a. the Airplane Wing), I may start putting my shopping list on my watch.

The Apps I Do Use

Aside from the timer and the weather apps/complications, these are the other apps I use on a regular basis:

  • Fitness + Activity: I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve gotten out of my running regimen. Ironically, building and launching The Focus Course, followed by a long vacation to Colorado, a trip to Atlanta, another to Dallas, and then the building and launching of a new product (announcement about that coming soon), has all accumulated into a wrench being thrown into my daily fitness routine.

  • Remote: The remote to our Apple TV just stopped working about one week before the new Apple TV was announced. Instead of replacing the remote, we’re waiting to replace the whole box. And in the meantime, the Remote app on my Apple Watch has gotten much more use.

  • Alarm: With “nightstand mode” in WatchOS 2.0, I started using the alarm on my Watch instead of my iPhone. And I discovered that the Watch’s alarm is night-and-day less obnoxious than the iPhone’s. So now I use the Watch alarm to wake in the morning instead.

  • Messages: Getting incoming text messages on the Watch is one of my favorite features. Not only does it serve as an additional reason not to get my phone out all the time, but it also means that I can leave my iPhone on the mantle in our kitchen and still be reachable via text / phone call.

    This is great for two reasons: (1) the iPhone 6s Plus isn’t as pocketable as my previous phones have been; and (2) it means my boys see me using my iPhone less frequently.

  • Slack: I also get notifications on my Watch for Slack messages. Since this is how the Blanc Media team communicates, it’s important for me to be reachable through private messages or mentions.

  • Music remote control: When using the iPhone to play music through a bluetooth speaker or to my bluetooth earbuds, the watch makes a very convenient remote control.

  • Apple Pay: Once you’ve used your Watch to pay for something, it’s hard to go back. So easy, so quick, so awesome.

* * *

After five months, the Watch gets far less “nerdy” usage than I originally thought it would get. And yet, at the same time, it has proven to be far more useful — and fun! — than I expected.

It’s an expensive little gadget, but I think it’s worth it. I’m excited to see what the future holds for the Watch.

Thirteen Days With an iPhone 6s Plus

On iPhone pre-order day, I lost my mind for a few minutes and decided it would be a good idea to order the gargantuan iPhone known as the 6s Plus.

The iPhone 6s Plus

I named it Hercules, because, well, it’s a hoss.

My friends who also use a 6/6s Plus told me to give it at least a week or two. It’s been 13 days, and I’m still not sure about it.

There are some things which I love about the phone. Namely: the superior mechanics for photography and videography, and the bigger screen real-estate. But I am not yet convinced that the tradeoff for those things — having a device that is unwieldy at best when using it with one hand — is worth it.

That said, here are some miscellaneous thoughts and observations about the iPhone 6s Plus.

Battery Life

For me, at least, this isn’t an issue. But it’s not because the Plus has made it a non-issue, it’s just that battery life has never been an issue for me with any iPhone I’ve owned.

Maybe my old 3GS would get into the red sometimes, but honestly I can’t remember the last time I had an iPhone that I had to regularly keep charged throughout the day.

I know people who say their iPhone has a dead battery by lunchtime, but I just don’t have a grid for that. So, the advantage of the better battery life of the 6s Plus is (unfortunately?) wasted on me.

Image Stabilization

The in-body image stabilization is pretty awesome.

Maybe its placebo, maybe not, but in the week and a half I’ve had this new iPhone, it definitely seems to contain a noticeably superior camera to my iPhone 6.

Here are two cute photos I’ve taken on the 6s Plus:

At the park -- Shot with the iPhone 6s Plus

Story Time -- Shot with the iPhone 6s Plus

These don’t really show off just how great the camera of the 6s Plus is, but they are photos of my family so I think they’re awesome.

For a much better comparison of the in-body image stabilization, check out this video that shows a side-by-side comparison of shooting video with the image-stabilized 6s Plus and the non-stabilized 6s.

Screen Density

In addition to having a larger screen, the Plus also has a higher pixel density.

As for the pixel density, even when side-by-side with my iPhone 6 I can’t see the difference between the two phones. So while it’s a cool feature on paper that makes a good reason to get the bigger phone, it’s not actually relevant in day-to-day life. At least, not for me.

The larger screen is definitely nice for a lot of things. Such as editing photos in VSCO Cam, browsing the web in Mobile Safari, reading in Instapaper or Kindle or the News app, typing, and more.

The iPhone 6s Plus

3D Touch

This new tech is awesome. Apps that support 3D Touch from the Home screen are instantly more useful. OmniFocus’s “New Inbox Item” action is one of my favorites (aside from the Camera app’s Selfie shortcut, of course). As I was writing this, Fantastical just shipped an update to support 3D Touch. So now I’m just hoping Simplenote will add shortcuts for creating a new note and searching.

And then there’s Trackpad Mode. Which is awesome.

Here are John Gruber’s sentiments about the new feature:

This might be the single best new feature for text editing on the iPhone since the addition of selection and Copy/Paste in iOS 3 in 2009. In addition to moving the insertion point around, you can press again and switch to selection mode — like double-clicking the mouse button on a Mac. Trackpad mode is a once-you’ve-used-it-you-can’t-go-back addition to iOS.

Agreed. This is the thing you demo to your friends about why getting the new iPhone 6s is worth it.

The Home Button (Literally)

That’s what it’s always been called, but that is literally what it is now.

It used to be that if you clicked the Home button while the screen was off then you’d see the Lock screen. But Touch ID is so ridiculously fast now that clicking the Home button is simultaneous with unlocking the iPhone.

This is both awesome and frustrating.

It’s awesome because the added level of security that Touch ID brings is anything but a burden. In fact, it’s now faster and easier to unlock your iPhone using Touch ID than it is to swipe with no security passcode at all.

Think about that. Having a more secure phone is also more convenient in day-to-day use.

However, the frustrating part of Touch ID’s speed is, ironically, that it makes it harder to get to the Camera app.

There are two ways to get around this. One way is to press the Home button with a finger that’s not registered with Touch ID. The other way is to press the Lock / Wake button. Alas, both of these options leave you in a spot that’s not easy to slide up on the Camera app icon that’s down in the bottom-right-hand side of the screen. On the 6s this wouldn’t be as much of an issue because it’s easier to hit the Lock / Wake button while still holding the phone comfortably. But for me, my thumb literally can’t reach the Lock / Wake button while holding the 6s Plus comfortably with one hand.

The iPhone 6s Plus

That Super Cool Wallpaper is via the Super Cool Unsplash.

Daily usage

The iPhone 6s Plus works best when you’re in a calm and controlled environment. Such as the couch, or at your desk. Basically anywhere that you’re stationary and have both hands free. In this context the Plus is awesome.

It is extremely easy to hold and use with two hands. Typing on the larger-but-not-too-large keyboard is fantastic. And the bigger screen is an excellent size for Instapaper, Twitter, Instagram, Day One, VSCO Cam, the News, Safari, and more.

As many other iPhone 6 Plus users have said before, with the larger iPhone, there’s not a huge need for an iPad mini. Slowly, over time, you realize the Plus is big enough for most of situations when you would have used the smaller iPad, and so you actually don’t need both devices.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of my writing on the iPad. And from time to time I enjoy reading comic books. For the evening reading and research that I often do with the iPad, while I could see the iPhone 6s Plus taking over that role, the iPad is still a bit better suited to it.

Where the iPhone 6s Plus does not shine is when you’re out and about. Walking through the grocery store, pushing a shopping cart, wrangling two toddler boys, and trying to check-off items on your shopping list app is not the ideal environment for using the 6s Plus with one hand. I’ve quickly learned how to push a shopping cart with just my elbows.

In short, for me, the 6s Plus is equal parts wonderful and terrible. There are some people who find the size to be just right, and so they have no sense of trade-offs with the device. But it is just too large for me to comfortably use as a hand-held phone.

The question is: Are the advantages of the Plus worth the disadvantages? A lot of people say absolutely. Some still say no way.

For me, I’m honestly still undecided. I’ll have to give it another 13 days.

What’s Your Minimum Effective Dose?

You’ve no-doubt heard of the Law of the Vital Few. It’s the 80/20 rule, which states that roughly 80-percent of the results come about from just 20-percent of the energy.

What if you took your 80-percent results and applied the 80/20 rule to them? And then one more time?


What you end up with is the idea that your initial 1-percent of energy spent brings about the first 50-percent of results.

That 1-percent of energy spent reaps a dispraportionate result. Tim Ferris calls it the Minimum Effective Dose.

In his book, The One Thing, Gary Keller writes that “success is about doing the right thing, not about doing everything right.”

If there was one thing you could do that represented roughly 1-percent of your time and energy. And if that one thing was a cause for the intial half of the results you’re seeking. Then it’s safe to say that it’s a good idea to keep on doing that one thing.

Step back for a moment and take stock of one area of your life that you want to improve. Perhaps it’s your health, your inner personal life, your relationship with your spouse or kids, your job, your finances, or your free time.

Looking at that area, you probably see right away the 1,000 things you wish were different and that you know you should change. But when you’re staring 1,000 important things in the face, you’ve no idea which one to start with. It’s totally overwhelming.

Which is why you need that Minimum Effective Dose.

Think again about that area of your life where you’d love to see change. What is one thing you could do that would have a disproportionate result compared to anything else you did?

Want to get in shape? Try walking for 30 minutes per day. Want to improve your marriage? Compliment your spouse every day. Want to get out of debt? Focus on paying off your smallest debt first to get it out of the way. Want to feel more recharged after the weekend? Read a book for 30 minutes before binge watching Netflix. Want to advance your career? Find someone new to have lunch with every week and ask them what you can do to help them.

These things in and of themselves will not revolutionize your life over night. But the power is in their simplicity and their do-ability. And once these things get into place as part of your day-to-day lifestyle then they create a momentum that you can ride as you incorporate new activities. For example, you start out just walkling for 30 minutes. And then you begin to jog for a while at first and then walk the rest of the way. Until pretty soon you’re jogging the full half-hour, and more…

But that’s not all. The other advantage to defining a Minimum Effective Dose is the simplification it brings.

Knowing the single most important thing you can do is liberating.

It simplifies your life because you know what it is you need to do, every day. Which, in turn, helps you know what you don’t need to do. You have just one task, one activity, one way to spend your energy. Go do it. Because the value in small things done consistently over time cannot be underestimated.

* * *

For further reading

Who, What, Why, How, and How Much

Consider the components to a creative business (or any business, really), and here’s what you get:

Who, What, Why, How, and How Much.

  • Who is your (ideal) customer or client.
  • What is the product or service you’re creating or providing.
  • How is a combination of your resources as well as your business plan (as in: how are you going to do the work, and how are you going to connect your product with your customer).
  • How Much relates to the value you’re providing to your customer as well as the price you’re charging them.
  • Why relates to the motivation, vision, and values of the work you do.

Two sidebars before we get started:

  1. This doesn’t just have to relate to indie entrepreneurs and start-up CEOs. It can relate to in-house designers, freelance developers, and more. Say you work for a design firm or a recording studio. Your “who” is your boss — your company. Your “How Much” is your salary.
  2. I used to think you had to start with why. But as I’ve been reading through Cal Newport’s book, I’m realizing that most of us start with what. In fact, Newport argues that you starting with why is actually bad advice. In short, it’s in the process of doing the work that we get much-needed experience and clarity about the sort of work we want to keep on doing, and in that process we are able to build up the relationships and resources we need in order to do the work that matters most to us.

That said, let’s break down the Who, What, Why, and How Much a bit more. I’m going to use The Focus Course as my example.

  • Who: My ideal customer for the Focus Course is someone who is eager to learn, do their best creative work, and has energy to move the needle forward in their life. Though I created the course so just about anyone can work through the 40 days of assignments, the person I most have in mind is someone who already has an internal drive to make changes in their life.

  • What: A self-guided, 40-day course that gives you insight and clarity into your values, goals, stress points, and distractions and then gives you an action plan for doing something about it all.

  • How: I built the course itself by writing every day, working with a pilot group to test and review the contents, and then working with a designer and developer to create the website that hosts the content.

  • How much: The price of the Focus Course is $249; the value, though it varies from person to person, is (I hope) much, much more than that.

  • Why: I’m someone who is naturally spontaneous, distracted, and seems to always have more ideas than time. In my early 20s I realized that I needed to get a grip on how I spent my time and energy or else I’d never make meaningful progress on the things that were most important to me. The ideas and tactics of The Focus Course are things that I myself have used and taught for more than a decade and I wanted to create a fun and even better way way to clearly teach these things to others.

Here’s a sketch I made (don’t laugh) to show how these elements interrelate with one another to form the components of a sustainable business.

Business Components

As you can see in the chart above, when your product and your customer connect, then value is created and exchanged. It’s at this intersection that your business model exists. You have something of value to offer, and others are willing to pay for it.

Additionally, if your product or service is something that aligns with your own personal values and goals, then when you sell to your customer you’re also giving expression to your vision.

There is immense satisfaction in providing something of value to someone else in such a manner that also sustains the ongoing providing of more value. Consider the converse: when our work and actions don’t align with our vision and values, it can be a huge drain on our morale and motivation.

This is what a sustainable business model is all about: doing work you’re proud of, providing value to others, and having a means to continue doing that work. It’s what Walt Disney meant when he famously said, “We don’t make movies so we can make money; we make money so we can make more movies.”

The money serves a two-fold purpose. For one, it gives some measure of validation to our work because money is a neutral indicator of value. If nobody (as in, literally not one person) is willing to pay for what it is you’re offering, then it’s probably not valuable enough (at least not yet). When that’s the case, simply go back to the drawing board to find a different expression of your creative idea or find a different market (or maybe both).

For his book, So Good They Can’t ignore You, Cal Newport interviewed successful entrepreneur, Derek Sivers. Newport asked Sivers about what it was that led to his entrepreneurial success. Derek replied that he has a principle about money that overrides his other rules: ”Do what people are willing to pay for,” he said. “Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.”

Derek Sivers — By aiming to make money you are aiming to be valuable

Secondly, money allows us to buy food, pay the bills, and acquire the tools and resources we need in order to keep making art and doing work.

The whole goal of Walt Disney’s movie making business model was to sustain their creative outlet of animating and producing films. It wasn’t about the money for money’s sake — it was about doing work they loved and enriching the lives of their audience. And by selling their work they could keep on making more movies.

For most makers, it’s not about the money. It’s about the creative work. There is (most days) joy in the journey and satisfaction in being part of a creative community. And there is the dream of adding value and enriching other people’s lives.

* * *

Again, from So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport writes that “people who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.”

While there are many dynamics which contribute to the feeling of a career that matters, one of them is the realization that the work you do is valuable to others. As Sivers said, by aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.

* * *

Further Reading

What Would Your Ideal Workspace Look Like?

Steve Jobs Workspace




* * *

A few weeks ago I wrote about Whole Brain Creativity, and how each of us have different learning and thinking styles.

And, as Cynthia Ulrich Tobias writes about in her book, The Way They Learn, we each have our own preferences for an ideal and productive work/learning environment.

The ideal elements of our best work space go far beyond the gear on our desk. It also includes the temperature of the room, the way it is lighted, how comfortable or not the chairs are, if we are hungry or not, if there is background noise/music or not, and more.

For me, even if I have 4 hours of interruption-free time and all the right tools are at my disposal, if the room I’m working in has an uncomfortable chair and is too cold, then it will be nearly impossible for me to concentrate.

* * *

I am a staunch proponent for making it a routine to do our best creative work every day. Quantity leads to quality, and showing up everyday helps us overcome procrastination and build a “creative habit”.

Why not show up every day to a work environment that is conducive to doing our best creative work? A space that serves us, inspires us, helps us, and gets out of our way and allows us to concentrate.

It seems obvious in hindsight, but oftentimes it’s the low-hanging fruit of things just like this that we take for granted.

My Ideal Workspace

Several weeks ago as I was thinking about this, I decided to write out what my ideal workspace would actually look like.

I didn’t let myself get caught up in the practical limitations of how all the elements would go together in reality. I just wrote down individual components that I wanted — things I knew would be awesome and helpful.

Here’s my list:

  • A huge, huge tabletop. Like 150-square-feet big. 5 feet deep and 30 feet wide. It has to be big because it has multiple “spaces” on it. One area for a computer and keyboard. Another area for spreading out books and notebooks for research. And yet with still enough space left over so that there’s a clean space somewhere. In short, big enough to spread out without taking over everything.
  • I could work either sitting or standing.
  • Speakers and music.
  • There is space for other people to work as well, but they don’t work there all the time. I need some hours every day to work alone and in concentration, but I also want to have hours every day where I am working with others and collaborating.
  • Lots and lots of natural light, with bright-yet-warm lamps and ceiling lights.
  • The view outside is of something spectacular — mountains, ideally — and there aren’t people walking by the windows to distract. But the office itself is just a short walk from a downtown area where there are coffee shops, restaurants, parks, and people.
  • Tall ceilings to allow space for big ideas and wildly creative thinking.
  • Fantastic coffee with non-generic coffee mugs.
  • A conversation-starting brown leather couch that’s ideal for reading, sipping on a drink, and taking napping.
  • Bookshelves, drawers, and plenty of other storage so that everything can have a place while also being easily accessible.
  • Beautiful and inspirational artwork and photography.
  • Lots of whiteboards so ideas are never in want of a space to get fleshed out.
  • Super fast internet that never goes down.

As I read though that list I can get a vivid picture of what a space like this would look like. It has the vibe of a master woodworker’s shop, but with the amenities and tools of a pixel pusher. It’s a place for thinking, relaxing, collaborating, and crafting.

But for some people, a large, open, and bright space like the one I’ve described sounds terrible. They’d prefer a smaller, quieter, more cozy room with walls painted deep and warm colors, and just a lamp. For others, their ideal work environment is free from the distractions of the Internet. And I’m sure a good percentage of folks would be happy to never see another white board in their life.

Will I ever have a work environment like the one outlined above? Maybe. I hope so. But identifying the elements of my ideal workspace isn’t just about a pie in the sky dream. It also gives me clues about what changes I can make to my current workspace.

For example, in my small downstairs den, I don’t have a spot for even one giant whiteboard. So maybe I should consider getting one of those kraft paper wall mounted rollers as a stand in.

And while I don’t have a 150-square-foot tabletop, I do have both a desk and a coffee table and I bet I could find a larger coffee table.

What does your ideal work environment look like?

Just because your company issued you a 3×5 desk, a semi-adjustable chair, and a room full of florescent lights and distractions, it doesn’t mean that is the ideal work environment for you.

What does your ideal work environment look like?

Is it open and collaborative, or is it cozy and personal? Music or silence? Coffee, tea, water, nothing at all?

Think to the last time you were deeply focused and concentrating on something enjoyable…

Where were you? What was your posture like? Were you eating or drinking anything? Were you at a desk, on the couch, on the floor, outside? Was there any music or other sounds? Were you alone, or were other people around?

The way you default to concentrating when you are doing something enjoyable can give you some insight into how you may best be able to concentrate when doing all of your work.

Make changes so as to have an ideal-as-possible work environment. So that way, when you show up to do your best creative work, you’re giving yourself as many advantages as possible.

Thoughts on Annual iPhone Upgrades

This year I decided to buy an unsubsidized iPhone so I could save a bit of cash on my monthly wireless bill, and so that I could own my iPhone.

But, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if that’s the best route after all.

Over on Lifehacker, Whitson Gordon crunched some numbers comparing the cost of a new phone to the value lost over 1, 2, 3, and 4 years. In short, if you’re holding onto your iPhone for 2-3 years in order to save money on upgrades, it’s actually not that much money saved compared to just buying a new model and selling your old model year over year.

This, of course, assumes that you are selling your old phones when you buy a new one.

However, nowadays, all the wireless carriers are making it much more difficult to buy a subsidized iPhone (which is why I decided to go with unsubsidized).

If you’re able to wrangle your carrier into selling you a subsidized iPhone, or you’re willing to just buy one unsubsidized, then you can rest easy to know that you’re spending about 1/2 as much compared to leasing your iPhone.

But, that’s only if you’re selling your year-old hardware on Craigslist or eBay. Which has become a challenge these days.

And thus, for those of us who don’t like to hassle with selling our iPhones on Craigslist / eBay, we trade it in to Gazelle. But Gazelle doesn’t pay as well (because they have to make a profit as well) and thus your net expense of ownership goes up.

And then there is another thing to consider: with Apple now also offering their iPhone leasing/upgrade program, it makes me wonder if the resale value of an iPhone will go down in the coming years. I suspect a lot of people will prefer to pay $32.41 or more per month and just trade in their previous iPhone in order to upgrade every year.

Here’s another way to think of it: a base-model iPhone 6 costs $649 unsubsidized. If you buy it, keep it in pristine condition, and then sell it one year later, you’ll get as much as $450 on eBay or Craigslist, or as little as $320 on Gazelle.

In that scenario, you’ve spent between $200 – $330 to use your iPhone for a year.

If you were to use that same iPhone for a year, except this time go through the Apple Upgrade plan, it would cost you $389 ($32.41 x 12).

And so, while Apple’s Upgrade Program is $60 more expensive at best, it also comes with Apple Care, and you don’t have to worry about keeping your device in pristine condition in order to get maximum resale value from it at the end of the annual upgrade cycle.

From where I’m sitting, if you like to upgrade every year, if you’re not ultra-thrifty, if you don’t care about keeping your old hardware, and if you like to pay for convenience, then Apple’s Upgrade program actually sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

What Does Opportunity Look Like?

Scott Belsky wrote an article a while back about how to find your Work Sweet Spot.

Your Work Sweet Spot is where you will have the greatest job fulfillment and satisfaction as well where you will give the greatest contribution to the field and provide the most value.

This sweet spot is found at the intersection of (1) your natural interests and preferences, (2) your skills and expertise, and (3) your opportunity stream.

Scott Belsky — The Work Sweet Spot

Belsky writes:

Over the years, I have met many creative leaders and entrepreneurs that have made an impact in their respective industries. No surprise, they love what they do. But when I ask probing questions about their career paths, it becomes clear that their good fortunes were not predestined. Aside from lots of hard work, great creative careers are powered by an intersection of three factors: Genuine Interest, Skills, and Opportunity.

The same thinking applies to successful creative projects. The magic happens when you find the sweet spot where your genuine interests, skills, and opportunity intersect.

Your interest and preferences are the things you are naturally drawn toward. How are you wired, what fascinates you, what do you daydream about?

Your skills are the things you’re talented at. For some it’s math, for others it’s art, or project planning, or counseling, or playing sports.

Ned Herrmann, author of The Creative Brain, and the man behind the Whole Brain model writes that: “To prefer something is to be drawn to it, to have a taste for it. Competency has to o with acquired knowledge and professional experience.”

Herrmann also writes that “true mastery in a specific domain can only be achieved in those areas that converge with our preferences.”

But mastery alone is not enough to have successful impact in that area. Now, of course, not everyone wants to have successful impact. But if you do, then you need opportunities to contribute to something bigger.

Which is why I want to unpack a bit more about what Scott Belsky calls the Opportunity Stream:

The third factor that plays into every successful career is opportunity. Unfortunately, this is often where we get stuck, discounting the potential opportunities that surround us as inadequate. There is no such thing as equal access to opportunity. Old boy networks and nepotism run rampant in all industries. And most opportunities are entirely circumstantial. As such, you must simply define “opportunity” as an action or experience that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest. Opportunity is less about leaps forward and more about the slow advance. Most folks I meet recall their greatest opportunities as chance conversations. This is why personal introductions, conferences, and other networking efforts really pay off. Just surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your “opportunity stream” – the chance happenings that lead to actions and experiences relevant to your genuine interests.

What does opportunity look like?

Belsky defines opportunity as an action or experience that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest.

As Belsky also says, these opportunities are usually slow advances. They are the little things that, in the moment, may seem inconsequential, but in hindsight prove to have been kairos moments.

Benjamin Franklin said that, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.”

Here are a few examples of actions or experiences that can bring you a step closer to your genuine interest, and ideas for how to find and create more actions and experiences.

  • Build and Foster Relationships: By far and away, the best “stream” for opportunity is with the people you know. They say if you’re out of sight you’re out of mind; and the opposite is true as well.

    Do you know what your most important relationships are right now? What are you doing to foster genuine relationships with people who are in the same area you are interested in?

  • Meet New People:Go to conferences. Go to local meet-ups. Introduce yourself to someone. Send encouraging emails to people that also offer a nugget of value to that person. And repeat. Keep fostering, maintaining, and building relationships.

    As I wrote a while back when I attended my first Macworld conference:

    I’m not here as a journalist with the goal of covering this Apple-centric event so much as I am here to meet the Mac nerds I am privileged to work alongside all year long.

    A handshake and a “nice to meet you” is worth so much more than an @reply. A conversation over a cup of coffee is better than two dozen emails.

  • Encourage the People You Already Know: In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor says that social support is our single greatest asset when it comes to success in “nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and in particular, our jobs, careers, and business,” and that random acts of kindness (such as encouraging others) are one of the most significant ways we can boost social support and, in turn, increase our own happiness.

    Achor writes:

    When we have a community of people we can count on — spouses, family, friends, colleagues — we multiply our emotional, intellectual, and physical resources. We bounce back from setbacks faster, accomplish more, and feel a greater sense of purpose. Furthermore, the effect on our happiness, and therefore on our ability to profit from the Happiness Advantage, is both immediate and long-lasting.

    Achor has conducted many studies and tests at different companies where employees were tasked with writing a 2-minute email to someone in their social support network (a friend or family member) as the first thing before they began their work day. They did this every day for 21 days, the result was a noticeable increase in employee happiness which, in turn, increased productivity, creativity, resiliency, confidence, learning skills, energy, and motivation.

    And in an article entitled “Pay It Forward“, Karen McGrane wrote:

    Not everything in our professional lives is a transaction, scrutinized and evaluated against how much it costs us, how much someone should pay. Not every teaching relationship must be formalized—a mentoring opportunity, a coach, an internship. Not every investment of time has to be “worth it.” Sometimes you just have a brief conversation with someone because—why not? You never know what will come of it.

  • Practice and Improving at Your Skill: They say opportunity finds you working. And while there is (obviously) a lot of value in the opportunity stream itself, you also need to be prepared. And so, yes, do something every day that will bring you a step closer to your genuine interest. But also do something every day that will help you improve your skills, competency, or knowledge in that area.

  • Show Up Every Day: Another way to increase your stream of opportunity is to do your best creative work every day and share it with others. If your genuine interest is technology, then what is one thing you can do every day that will increase the activity happening around that topic for you?

  • Create Opportunities for Others: Become awesome at word of mouth marketing for the people, products, and services you find great value in.

    For example: I often get emails from readers who are wanting to build a website and are in need of a designer / developer. They ask me if I have a recommendation, and naturally I tell them about the people I know and have worked with in the past.

    Don’t shy back from introducing people to one another, or from introducing your friends and social network to great products or services.

* * *

Again, as Belsky wrote, simply surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your Opportunity Stream. Get around other people; go to more events; encourage people more frequently; provide value to others.

When I wrote about building better defaults, this is exactly the sort of application I had in mind.

What is one action or experience you can do today that will move you one step closer to your genuine interest?

Books for September

Looking for something awesome to read this month? Here are two suggestions. One to learn from and one to kick back with.

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People Over Profit By Dale Partridge

People Over Profit is an excellent book about running a business and building a brand that values people and ethics more than the bottom line. The premise is easy enough to understand: if you build a company where values such as honesty, generosity, courage, and quality are built into the fabric of your business model then success will almost certainly follow.

It’s easy to read the cliffnotes and be like, oh yeah, I get that. But do you? Really?

Dale has done an excellent job at outlining just why the values of people, truth, transparency, authenticity, quality, generosity, and courage are so important. And also how these things can impact your business model, company culture, and your brand.

The chapters on transparency, quality, and courage especially hit home for me. Transparency because I believe I have some areas that I can be more transparent with my readership and my team. Quality because the whole chapter was like the thesis statement from my own book, Delight is in the Details. And the courage chapter because it offers a lot of insight into a topic that I’ve been researching a lot lately: how fear can keep us back from doing our best creative work.

One of the many quotes that stood out to me from the book is this:

Business is really just the act of stewarding a series of relationships.

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The Martian By Andy Weir

I read The Martian while during vacation last Christmas and I couldn’t put it down. If you’re not familiar with the premise, it’s about an astronaut, Mark Watney, who gets stranded on Mars after a 4-man mission goes wrong and has to survive with very limited supplies.

The movie comes out in a few months, but why wait to watch it when you can read the book now? (I’ve also heard that the audiobook version of The Martian is fantastic.)

Relatedly, the author, Andy Weir, recorded a podcast with James Altucher a while back. He shares about how The Martian was written and how in his attempts to give away the book, the Kindle version accidentally became a best seller on Amazon and led to the book and movie deal.

* * *

Also Worthwhile

  • The Sketchnote Workbook: This book is actually far deeper than just a workbook to help you improve your sketchnoting chops. As Mike Rohde lays out in the very beginning, sketchnoting is about ideas, not art; it’s about listening to ideas, analyzing them, and finding the ones that resonate. (More on this topic tomorrow.) The workbook gives insight, instruction, and opportunity for ideation, creating idea maps, planning, documenting, and more. Even if you’re not “artistic”, there is much wisdom to glean just about the overall initial stages of the creative process.

  • Just yesterday I started reading In Pursuit of Elegance. One chapter in and I’m already pumped about it. Matthew E. May covers seven design lessons: (1) What isn’t there can often trump what is; (2) The simplest rules create the most effective order; (3) Limiting information creates intrigue; (4) Subtraction and restraint promote customer co-created value; (5 Limited resources are the very source of sustainable innovation; (6) Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing; and (7) “Break” is an important part of any breakthrough.

Whole Brain Creativity

Are you a right-brain person or a left-brain person?

Right brain folks are more artistic, feeling, intuitive, and creative — they like to find solutions by making connections and trusting their intuition. Left brain folks are more rational and logical — they like order, data, facts, guarantees, and reliability.

But there is more than just left-brain or right-brain types of people. There are actually four types of thinking (or learning) styles.

The two researchers in this are that I’m most familiar with are Ned Herrmann and Anthony Gregorc. Gregorc created what he calls the Mind Styles Model. Herrmann created what he calls Whole Brain Thinking.

If you break the two hemispheres down even further, as Ned Herrmann, Anthony Gregorc, and many others have done, then you get the four quadrants of the brain. Each of us has a dominant quadrant that we think and learn from — a way of thinking and percieving the world that is most natural to us. But each of us can use all four quadrants.

Herrmann - Whole Brain Thinking

Herrmann uses colors to define the four quadrants: Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow. Gregorc’s quadrants each have a name based on the way people perceive and order information: Abstract Sequential, Concrete Sequential, Abstract Random, and Concrete Random.

Gregorc’s AS, CS, AR, and CR quadrants correlate to Herrmann’s Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow quadrants pretty easily.

  1. Blue (Abstract Sequential) is where logical, analytical, and technical thinking happens. Blue thinkers are the ones making sure we don’t value form over function because they are rational and care about performance and analytics. They are objective, thorough, quantitative and technical. They’ve probably got a mental calculator ready to go, which is why they tend to be engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc.

  2. Green (Concrete Sequential) is where people are detailed, organized, administrative, reliable, and structured. They are tactical, and tend to be project managers, bookkeepers, and administrators because they value control, structure, reliability, and tradition.

  3. Red (Abstract Random) is where you find emotional, expressive, interpersonal, and spiritually-minded people. They are compassionate, perceptive, and sensitive. They care deeply about people, and they have the ability to read the emotional temperature of a room right when they walk in. They tend to be teachers, trainers, charity workers, and musicians so they can help others and frequently connect on a personal level in and through their career.

  4. Yellow (Concrete Random) is where creative, artistic, and conceptual thinking happen. These people are usually visionary and risk taking and tend to become entrepreneurs, artists, and strategists. They value spontaneity, risk, beauty, design, and fun. They are also excellent at recognizing patterns, and have a strong ability to form connections between two or more seemingly contrasting ideas.

If you’re at all familiar with these (and other) styles, then you know that I’m grossly oversimplifying the science behind these things. And I bet Gregorc and Herrmann wouldn’t be too happy with me comparing their two models so closely. (But I can’t help it. I’m a strong Yellow thinker, so I like connecting ideas and finding patterns.)

But I’m not here to do a deep dive on the science of learning, thinking, etc.

What strikes me about the whole brain model is that it highlights the different joys and challenges of creativity.

Each of us are dominant in one of these four quadrants. You, dear reader, have some strength and some weakness of all four quadrants of learning and thinking style, but one of them is your most dominant. Do you mostly thrive on: Facts and logic? Form and Safety? Feelings and relationships? Or future ideas and concepts?

However, for us to do our best creative work — work that matters — we have to operate out of all four quadrants.

Operating out of all four quadrants looks different for everyone because everyone has one or two quadrants that they are strongest in and then a few quadrants they are weaker in.

If you are a strong “Yellow” thinker, then having visionary creative solutions is probably a natural part of your everyday life. But you may have trouble when it comes time to execute on your ideas.

Or if you are a strong “Green” thinker, then you can whip up a plan while the coffee is still brewing. But you may have trouble seeing the big picture, or understanding it’s significance.

We will always naturally operate out of our dominant quadrant. But our best creative work must flow out of all four quadrants. We need to have a desire to problem solve (Blue), we need to have enough structure and organization in order to show up every day (Green), we need to have empathy and emotion toward others and a desire to help them (Red), and we need care about creating and making (Yellow).

In addition to our own individual need to think and work using all four quadrants, we can also benefit greatly from having people around us who are dominant in different areas. If you are a strong red thinker, then get someone who is blue to work beside. While you may have friction at first (you will see them as being cold and calculating; they will see you as being too talkative and sentimental), you will actually bring some healthy balance to one another and make more progress as a team.

The challenge is to operate out of the areas of our brain that don’t come naturaly to us. Are your creative solutions intuitive? Do they solve a problem? Are you able to show up every day and do the work? Are you trying to serve and delight others?

To do work that matters, answering ‘yes’ to just one or even two of these is not enough.

In the same way that our best creative work flows from all four quadrants, it must also flow to all four quadrants for it to be effective in reaching others.

Building Better Defaults

As you know, I’ve been working for myself from home for over four years. And even still, I’m terrible at estimating how much time I need to spend on a particular task.

At first, my bad time estimations would frustrate drive my wife. She’d ask me how long until I was done working and I’d think about how I had just three more emails left in my inbox and how I could probably get them triaged in 5 minutes. But then an hour would go by…

Fortunately my wife has learned to take my time estimations and quadruple them. Because I still frequently overestimate what I can get done in a short amount of time. And, like many others, I also tend to underestimate what I can accomplish over an extended season.

It’s a backwards problem. Not only does it put all the emphasis on “how much” I can do today — it also means I get frustrated when I can’t get everything done that’s on my massive, never-ending, to-do list.

When my emphasis is on today’s quantity of tasks accomplished, it leads me to de-value the little actions that have great impact over time. The little things that ultimately lead to incremental yet consistent progress and thus accomplishing a lot over an extended season.

If you know anything about investing you know it’s far better to invest $100 every month for 30 years then to invest $36,000 all at once three decades from now.

Assuming an 8% rate of return, if you invested a mere $100/month for 30 years then your investment would be worth $135,939.

However, if you waited until the very end of those 30 years and then tried to invest all $36,000 at once then your investment would be worth exactly that: $36,000. You’d miss out on $100,000 worth of compounding interest. Not to mention the fact that it’s a lot harder to come up with $36,000 all at once than it is to come up with $100 consistently.

This principle is true for all the investments of our lives. It extends far beyond just finances. It’s true for our relationships, our vocation and our career, our art, our education, even our physical health.

Doing a little bit on a regular basis is far more powerful than doing a whole lot at once. It’s also far more sustainable.

But we despise doing a little bit on a regular basis. We live in a culture that craves microwave results. And thus, we have acquired a thirst for instant gratification.

For example, we want to get healthier, but the idea of starting a routine of walking for just 15 minutes a day doesn’t motivate us — we despise how simple and humble that approach is. And so instead we buy a gym membership, hire a personal trainer, spend $500 on new workout clothes and fancy armbands to hold our iPhones, and we commit to 2 hours a day 6 days a week. Then we burn out in a few weeks time never to exercise again.

Only a fool would deposit $100 into a savings account and come back the next day expecting it to have grown to $200. It’s not until years later that the account begins to see the exponential return on the investment. We know that financial investments and the growth of compound interest takes time — so too the investments we make in the rest of our lives.

One of the personal challenges of doing small things consistently over time is that we don’t naturally choose them. In the moment, we would rather spend that $100 on a new toy or a nice dinner instead of investing it.

We tell ourselves that it’s only $100, and that spending it instead of investing it just this one time doesn’t really hurt anything. But it does hurt. And the reason it hurts is because it makes spending the $100 next time all the easier. And before long, it’s been a decade and we’ve yet to invest a dime.

Clearly, there is value in small things done consistently over time.

Which means that our most basic actions and seemingly inconsequential routines are actually the key players moving our life in whatever direction it is going.

Ben Franklin said, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.”

What are these little advantages that occur every day?

They are the daily habits and lifestyle choices we make.

For a while we have choose them — sometimes on purpose and sometimes not. But then, after a few weeks or a few months they begin to choose us back. And over time, they become deeply rooted. We just do them.

This is great news for our good habits! It means that if we begin to implement something healthy and helpful into our lifestyle, then over time it will become second nature to us.

But our deep-rooted routines can be a nightmare if they are things we don’t want to be doing. Such as a poor diet, unhealthy relationship with our spouse or loved ones, inability to manage money, etc.

We don’t all have the physical and mental willpower to make great decisions all day every day. In fact, as the day goes along, we slowly lose our willpower.

When I was in high school, after classes my friends and I would walk back to my house and we’d just sit around doing nothing.

One person would ask: “So, what do you guys want to do?” And someone else would respond: “I don’t know. What do you want to do?”

None of us could think of any ideas for what to do. Nor could any of us make a decision. It’s not just that we were teenage dudes — we were also mentally tired from a full day of school.

Even now, 15 years later, when my work day is done, I just want to collapse on the couch and not make any decisions or think about anything.

When you’re in this tired state is the moment when your lifestyle habits take over. Whatever your default actions, behaviors, and decisions are, these are the things you will do when you are low on willpower and your decision-making ability is fatigued.

I think this is a huge reason why the average American spends 5 hours or more watching television every day.

He or she comes home from the day feeling tired and doesn’t want to think about what to do. So he or she simply turns on the television and pretty soon the whole evening has been spent watching sitcoms and crime dramas.

Over time (which can be as quickly as a few weeks for some, but takes about 8 weeks for most) the act of watching TV every night after work becomes a routine. It turns into a lifestyle habit. That person’s mind and body expect to watch TV and even look forward to it. It’s a habit — a reflex.

Now, I’m not here to preach that 5 hours of TV every day is bad (you can figure that one out for yourself).

You can do whatever you want with your time. But… if you were to choose how you would prefer to spend your week which one of these options would you pick?

  1. Watch 35 hours of television.
  2. Write 7,000 words toward your next book.
  3. Encourage 7 of your closest friends and family members.
  4. Read 7 chapters of a book.
  5. Walk 7 miles.

I know some of you will say that watching 35 hours of TV per week is your preferred way to spend your time. But I bet most of you would choose to write, read, connect with others, or stay healthy.

Now, what if I told you that you could trade the 35 hours of television for the other 4 tasks combined?

35 hours of TV is equal to 5 hours every day for 7 days.

With those same 5 hours each day, you’d have time to spend one whole hour writing, one whole hour encouraging someone over email or making a phone call, one whole hour to read a chapter from a book, one whole hour to walk a mile around your neighborhood, and still have one whole hour to spare (heck you could use that last hour to watch an episode of your favorite show).

You can do a lot in 5 hours. Especially if you break it up into small routines.

It sounds ridiculous that someone could get so much done every day when they’re so used to getting nothing done. But it’s not ridiculous. It just requires building better defaults.

If you choose something long enough, eventually it will choose you back. The same way your mind and your body looked forward to turning on the TV when you got home from work, so too will your mind and body learn to look forward to reading, writing, walking, and encouraging others.

Leo Babauta wrote about how his most important things (writing, meditation, reading, email processing, workouts, meals) he doesn’t even have to think about. He’s built them into his day as defaults.

I cannot stress enough the importance of having your most important work be a part of your daily routine.

There are two quotes that I use often throughout The Focus Course:

“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” — F.M. Alexander

“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” — John C. Maxwell

By far and away, if you have more ideas than time but more time than attention, the best way to keep the needle moving forward is to have smarter “defaults” for how your spend your time and energy. Keep choosing the right actions and attitudes until they choose you back.

Concerning the Ebb and Flow of “Work”

As I write this, I’m preparing to spend a week in the mountains. And, in fact, by the time you read this I’ll already be in the mountains.

Up until this point, the entirety of 2015 I spent working on The Focus Course. Now that it has shipped, I’m taking some time away from work.

When you rest well, it should leave you feeling recharged and re-energized, ready to get back to work. I love to work. I love creating things and connecting with people. But work needs and ebb and and a flow.

I’ve discovered that I work best with seasons where my focus is solely on the idea and task at hand. Where I eat, sleep, and breath one particular project. And then, I need time away from work. To give my mind space to breath.

Perhaps you can relate, or perhaps you think I’m crazy, but taking time off isn’t easy for me. My tendency is to work, work, work.

Though I don’t let my work time come before my family time, I do have to remind myself that even my working hours aren’t all about “creating”. It took me several years before I realized it was just as important for me to read, study, and learn as it was for me to write, make, and ship.

In this short and sweet interview with Cameron Moll, he shares about his work and life as a designer and the founder of Authentic Jobs. I love this quote:

I was always building stuff with my hands growing up. Like always. Wood projects, go-karts, radio-controlled airplanes, that sort of thing. I think we underestimate sometimes just how much those kinds of activities, the ones that seem completely unrelated to our careers, play a vital role in shaping who we become and what we do with our working lives. The tools I use now in business are totally different from those I used in my garage twenty years ago, but in the end they’re all the same. They’re just tools that facilitate synthesis and creativity. And ten or twenty years from now, those tools will be totally different again. Mastery of creation and composition is much more important than mastery of tools.

I love that sentiment: “Mastery of creation and composition is much more important than mastery of tools.”

Here, Cameron is talking about the tools we use to build things. But I believe that this could also be applied to our workflows and our lifestyles as well. That mastery of creation is much more important than mastery of workflows.

We often ask people about the tools they use to get the job done. We’re curious about their work routines, their schedule, their priorities, etc.

But we rarely ask them what they are doing to stay sharp. What do they do in their off time? What hobbies to they keep? What does their family life look like? How do they spend their free time?

Who we are and what we do when we are away from our most important work is just as important as the energy and focus we give to doing that work. Because we are who we are, everywhere we are. Eating a healthy meal, having a good night’s sleep, telling our spouses that we love them — all these things impact the quality of the work we produce.

The lines between work and life are much more blurry than we like to imagine.

Another article I read just recently is this story about how William Dalrymple writes his books.

It takes Dalrymple 3-4 years to write a book. The first 2-3 years are spent reading, researching traveling. Then, the final year is spent writing.

Dalrymple shares about how his writing year is “completely different from the others”. He stops going out much. He gets up at 5:30 every morning to write. He works out in his back shed where there is no internet connection. He doesn’t look at his cell phone or email until after lunch.

In the final year I go from a rambling individual to almost autocratically, fixatedly hardworking and focused and that is the one discipline of being a writer. One year in four or five you are completely eaten up by the book. If it’s working, you’re really dreaming it, it’s not a figure of speech, it’s a literal thing. You’re harnessing the power of your subconscious.

As artists we so often hear about these seasons of other artists’ lives: the intense, focused, eat-sleep-work seasons. And we think that this is what life is like all the time.

But it can’t be. Dalrymple couldn’t spend a year focused on his writing without the preceding 2-3 years of reading, researching, and traveling.

You have to be inspired first before you can create.

You have to learn before you can teach.

You have to experience before you can share.

There is no shame in taking time “off” of your work, in order to learn something, experience something, and be inspired.

This is the ebb and flow of work. This is having multi-year cycles where we grow in our mastery of creation beyond just mastery of tools and workflows. This is why resting well is so valuable and why learning, thinking, and discovering cannot be underrated.

* * *

P.S. Just a side note to mention that the challenges of work-life balance, fighting a sense of overwhelm, and giving ourselves space to think and margin for thought are all foundational topics to The Focus Course. If this article hits home for you, I bet you would find immense value in taking 40 days to work your way through the course.

Creativity is a Gift

Doing our best creative work is a fight.

It strikes me this morning that I’ve been saying this often over the past few years. (Maybe it’s becoming my motto or tagline or something.)

I love how Steven Pressfield puts it. In his books — especially The War of Art — he talks at length about that great enemy called resistance.

Pressfield writes that “any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity,” or, “any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower” is sure to elicit resistance.

When you set your sights on doing something of value and something meaningful, rest assured you will face resistance.

If you’ve ever spent so much as a one minute trying to create something of value and substance, then you know first hand that it is a fight to be and stay creative.

But what I love about the fight is that it’s self evident.

If you find yourself facing fear, doubt, shame, difficulty, perplexity, and/or overwhelm when you sit down to do the work then rejoice! All that resistance means you’re trying to do something worthwhile. The resistance is proof that you’re on the right track. Don’t quit.

Seriously. Don’t quit.

But quitting is not what I’m here to talk about. The advice to not quit is common. It’s good advice. You and I need to hear it every day. When I set my watch for 30 minutes, put in my earbuds, shut off the outside world, and make myself write for half an hour I have to remind myself that I’m not allowed to quit.

As a creative person you need boundaries.

You need space to think. You need time to focus on the work at hand while your mind stares up to the stars, discovering new worlds and ideas.

You need time to yourself.

You need at least some level of autonomy to call the shots and draw a line in the sand.

But I have found that in my process of setting up boundaries that help me do my best creative work, a seed of selfishness and narcissism can plant itself.

Don’t let that happen. In the fight to do our best creative work, narcissism is not the destination — generosity is.

Why? Because creativity should, by definition, bring life. You’ve taken something that did not previously exist and now it does.

Which means your best shot at doing your best creative work is to do something that will bring life to others.

As you focus on doing your best creative work, don’t get so absorbed in your own thoughts and your own world that you cease to be generous, kind, outgoing, helpful, and selfless toward others.

Don’t Let Success Breed Failure

At the recommendation of Jeff Sheldon, a few days ago I ordered Dale Partridge’s new book, People Over Profit. I’m half-way through, and the book is about so much more than running an honest and successful business.

Partridge’s book is about character, integrity, honesty, serving others, being transparent and generous, and investing in quality. People Over Profit is encouraging and thought provoking for anyone with a platform, an audience, an entrepreneurial spirit, and/or a role in leadership or management.

I’ve highlighted several passages and quotes so far, and a couple of them I want to write about today.

Here’s one of the first idea from the book that really struck me. Partridge writes:

All good companies must have some level of efficiency, which can be a tool to help achieve noble goals. But problems arise when efficiency becomes the goal — when it is no longer a means to an end but the end in itself.

The context here is that Partridge is talking about how most companies start out with honest values and goals, but as their business grows these companies seek ways to improve their efficiency and to keep growing.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking to improve efficiency and to keep growing. In fact, I touched on this recently when I wrote about value, price, cost, and profit. In order increase profit without decreasing value you have to either: (a) add more value; or (b) lower costs without sacrificing quality.

Increasing efficiency without losing value or quality is not so easy. But what Partridge had to say about efficiency becoming the main goal stood out to me on a personal level as well.

Take the same quote from above but replace “all good companies” with “any individual” and the text still rings true:

Any individual must have some level of efficiency, which can be a tool to help achieve noble goals. But problems arise when efficiency becomes the goal — when it is no longer a means to an end but the end in itself.

This past November I recorded a whole podcast episode on the issue of focusing too much on focus. The idea is that distractions and resistance are universal things we all face when trying to get things done. It’s important to know what to focus on, to be good at working through distractions, and to reduce to the essentials when it comes to projects and our environment. But it’s also possible (if not easy) to obsess so much on focus that we’re not even getting the most important things done because we’re too concerned about being efficient.

As a husband, a father, and as someone who makes things I would much rather move slowly in the right direction than quickly in the wrong direction.

* * *

The second quote that stood out to me is actually a quote Partridge pulled from Jim Collins’s book, How the Mighty Fall.

Launching headlong into activities that do not fit with your economic or resource engine is undisciplined. Addiction to scale is undisciplined. To neglect your core business while you leap after exciting new adventures is undisciplined. To use the organization primarily as a vehicle to increase your own personal success—more wealth, more fame, more power—at the expense of its long-term success is undisciplined. To compromise your values or lose sight of your core purpose in pursuit of growth and expansion is undisciplined.

I’ve read so many times about how success for a company can be more deadly than failure. Because with success comes opportunity and options. Which, in the words of Jim Collins, can open the door for a company to loose discipline and focus.

When companies lose focus from doing their primary mission — doing what they are best at — then they slowly begin to lose ground.

And the same is true for individuals. When you or I lose focus on doing what is most important then we begin to drift.

They say 70% of lottery winners spend their entire winnings within 5 years of hitting jackpot and are oftentimes worse for wear afterward. They “finally” got their big break but it didn’t improve the quality of their life.

Another study I recently heard about discovered that people’s baseline level of happiness does not grow proportionally to their income. They said that after someone’s annual salary reaches $65,000 their general mood and happiness sort-of plateau relative to their income. That even if that person were to double their annual income to $130,000 their “happiness level” would only increase by 7%. (The study went on to say that people were more happy when they spent their money on experiences and generosity rather than on things.)

As a company or as an individual, we all go through seasons of plenty and seasons of want. And I’m not just talking about finances. We go through seasons of plenty and seasons of want with our quality relationships, our quality of life, our health, our areas of influence, and more.

The challenge is to live with intention no matter the season.

We hear that term a lot: “intentional living.” Basically it just means we have the wherewithal to take a moment to pause and think. It means we respond to things instead of reacting to them.

So, when you’re in a season of plenty — as a business or as an individual — then invest your resources wisely and take time to pause and think so you can stay on focus.

I’m serious. Re-focusing is not a sign of weakness. Nor does it mean you’re in over your head. Every human needs regular “re-focusing” to stay on track.

Life happens, and our priorities and circumstances change. Give yourself permission to spend a week or a month taking stock of your values and priorities. Re-assess how you’re spending your time and energy. Doing so is a sign of maturity and motivation.

Behind The Scenes of The Focus Course: Outlining, Architecting, and Writing

The Focus Course Notecards

I built the Focus Course on 3×5 notecards.

While there were other tools — such as highlighters, binder clips, the world’s greatest pen, iA Writer, MailChimp, WordPress, a Baron Fig notebook, and a stack of paperback books taller than my 3-year-old — the notecards proved to be instrumental.

The idea to outline and build the Focus Course on notecards came from this awesome video about how Dustin Lance Black creates his movie screenplays:

So, earlier this year, I opened up a fresh pack of DotDash cards from my pals a Nock and wrote down all the ideas and topics for the course. Putting only one idea, topic, assignment, or lesson per notecard. Then I laid everything out to survey what was there.

Being able to see it all visually like this proved to be immensely helpful. I could quickly move stuff around and get an idea for the overall flow of the course.

The Focus Course Notecards

I had 7 “rows” of cards: the Introduction, the five modules, and the conclusion. At first I had just shy of 60 days worth of cards in there. But I knew that I had to keep it to 40 (in the end I cheated by not counting the introduction or conclusion day, so technically it’s 42 days).

The challenge of paring the course from 60 days down to 40 wasn’t easy. Some of the cards I just tossed out altogether. Others I ended up combining. When friends would come over, I’d bring them down to my office and show them the outline and ask what they thought.

Finally, once I had the 40 days settled, I went through the order over and over in my head. I wanted Day 1 to lead into Day 2 to lead into Day 3, etc. I wanted all of Module 1 to lead into Module 2. And so on. I wanted there to be an ebb and flow to the lessons, so that the more fun days were interspersed with the more challenging introspective day, etc. And I wanted the course to start with something easy and fun note and to end with something fun but challenging.

In short, the information architecture of the course was just as vital as the contents. And the notecards were instrumental in helping get the architecture just right.

The Focus Course Notecards

With the order of the course finally finished. I started outlining each lesson. On the front of each card was simply the focus for each day. On the back of the card I could put any notes, ideas, and references for that day, but it had to fit on the card. I didn’t want to have so much content it’d be impossible to get through each day’s lesson in a timely manner, so my outlines were literally constrained by the physical size of a 3×5 notecard.

Then, I put the whole stack of cards in order, placed them next to my desk, and started writing. Each day I took the topmost card and wrote the corresponding lesson for the course.

It took me 47 days to write the course. I began on March 19 and finished on May 5. During that month and a half, I wrote 40 daily lessons, plus the course’s introduction, conclusion, and the 5 module overviews: roughly 55,000 words in total; an average of 1,170 words every single day.1

It was this outlining and writing workflow that got me into the habit of having a pre-defined topic to write about. Writing the Focus Course in 47 days may sound like a huge task, but actually it was pretty easy.

For one, because I was so deeply immersed in the topics and content, everything was top of mind. Secondly, the rhythm and routine of writing every day got pretty easy after the first couple weeks.

Lastly, the constraints of the notecards themselves — a single topic with a pre-defined outline — took away much of the ambiguity involved in the writing process. All I had left to do was expound on the ideas I had already written down.

* * *

This workflow could be used for so many other things: A book, a weekly email newsletter, a month-long series of blog posts, etc.

If you’re struggling to write daily, consider giving it a try. Pick a subject, write down a handful of singular ideas, give yourself a constraint about how in-depth (or not) you’ll go on each idea, and then give yourself a timeline for when you’ll write about and publish each of those.

  1. In a future post I’ll be sharing about the how and why I had a group of 90 pilot members to go through the course ahead of time and help me finalize the contents and flow. These amazing folks proved to be so valuable and helpful.

Remembering to Take My Own Advice

Just because you know about something doesn’t mean you do anything about it. There are overweight dietitians, sleep-deprived sleep researchers, broke business coaches, and angry counselors.

Common knowledge is not the same as common action.

* * *

The balance between our work and personal lives isn’t so much a perfect balancing act. It’s more of a zig and a zag. We spend a season of time focusing on a particular area of life, then we pull back and spend a season focusing on something else. We work hard at the office and then we go on vacation with the family.

It has been three weeks since the Focus Course launched. And now that this chapter of my life is closed, in the zig-zag of life I am taking some time off during the next month to be with and visit family as well as to celebrate 10 amazing years of marriage with my wife.

And during this down-time I’ll be thinking about what’s next.

* * *

This morning I was leafing through the notebook I used to jot down most of my research notes related to The Focus Course.

I came across one page, right in the middle of my notebook, that had several unordered bullet points on the importance of a focused life. These are some of the original ideas that later got expounded on as part of the course. I want to share them here with you.

  • If you want to do everything, be everywhere, and control everything you’re more likely to do, be, and control nothing.
  • Energy and motivation go further when they’re focused / channeled into a specific area.
  • Clearly defined boundaries empower us to do better work. Hence the value in having daily routines. Also boundaries for how we will not spend our time, money, energy, etc. We have a finite amount of motivation, so keep in mind that if we commit to something new then it will need energy from another area of life.
  • Goals and action plans allow all your energy to know where to take aim. Your motivation has a path to run on.
  • Quality relationships are critical! Get around people with a sense of humor, who are high performers, who are fun and funny, and who are generous.
  • We need humor and enjoyment in life.
  • If you feel that you don’t have enough time, realize you have all the time you’re going to get. It’s impossible to be motivated when operating under other people’s unreasonable timezones and the tyranny of the urgent. Time is infinitely more valuable than money.

I have such a propensity to want to do everything, be everywhere, and control everything. But I know that the times I’ve done my best work are the times when I had one specific goal and one main project that I was focused on.

Reading my own notes this morning was a reminder to myself that just because I know a little bit about focus and diligence, doesn’t mean I’m immune to ever being un-focused. As I take some time to think and plan for what is next, I also need to remember to take my own advice: clearly defined boundaries empower; life needs humor and joy; I have all the time I’m going to get.

If you’re also slowing down this summer to think about what’s in store for the next season of life, instead of trying to figure out how you’re going to do it all, maybe try to do one thing really well.

The Art of Price and Value

Two years ago I launched my first real product.

I remember waking up the morning of the launch and feeling sick. I didn’t have the flu. I was scared. There was a big knot in the pit of my stomach. I felt like a fraud. I was afraid people would buy my book, read it, and feel ripped off.

The book I’m talking about is Delight is in the Details.

On the day I was to put it up for sell all I could think about was how I felt like a fraud and an imposter. I was scared that I was charging for something that should be free. In short, I wasn’t confident that the value of the book was greater than the price I was charging.

Who was I, I thought, to make something and then ask people to give me money for it? I didn’t trust my ability to create something of value.

It was such a bizarre feeling. I chose to ignore it and stick with my plan. I put Delight is in the Details up for sale when I said I would and I didn’t lower my price.

Delight is in the Details has since gone on to sell more than 2,000 copies. I have heard from so many people who have read the book, listened to the interviews, and have been inspired. I’ve even gone back and referenced my own writing from the book multiple times, to re-take my own advice and remind myself of those values and ideas.

* * *

Over the past two years, I’ve thought a lot about that day and those feelings: the fear, doubt, and even the shame that can accompany a product launch. Here you’ve got this thing that you’ve created for someone else, and you’re trying to assign a value to it. It’s not easy to do.

But since that initial product launch two years ago, I’ve since had two more times through a launch: last summer (2014) I published a big update to Delight is in the Details, and then a couple weeks ago I published The Focus Course.

Here’s an interesting data point: I charged more each product. In part because I learned how to add more and more value, but also because I learned to trust my ability to create something of value.

If you’ve got a product you’re trying to assign a value to, here’s something to consider:

Your product has three adjustable numbers: Cost, Price, and Value.

Cost Value Price

Cost is the time and money it takes to make the product.

Price is what you sell the product for. (Assuming it’s higher than your cost, then the difference is your profit.)

Value is what your product is worth in the eyes of the people who buy it.

These three numbers must be in balance.

Your price has to be more than your cost so you can make a profit. But you also want your price to be less than the product’s value so the people who buy from you are getting something worthwhile.

This is why pricing is an art, not a science. You need to make a sustainable and worthwhile profit from your product. But you also want to provide as much additional value as possible.

In my experience, there are two ways to adjust my cost/price/value ratios in order to have a price that is sustainable for me while also being fair to the people who buy my products.

  1. First is to cut your costs in a way that doesn’t simultaneously sacrifice value or quality. Sometimes this is as easy as not wasting money on trivial minutia. Sometimes it requires thinking outside the box, working smarter, finding better help, scaling your production to get price breaks, or cutting out features that maybe can wait until a future update.

  2. Second is to add value in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily or dramatically increase complexity or cost. I think one of the best ways to do this is by sweating the details. When you add empathy and delight to your product and the experience surrounding it, then the people who use it feel honored and excited.

    The packaging that an Apple product comes in is an excellent example of both empathy (the boxes are easy to open and unpack) and delight (the boxes are high quality and well designed). It’s one of many ways Apple adds value to their products without dramatically increasing the cost to make the product.

* * *

Here I’m going to share my own examples of how I did this, by sharing what I did to add value to The Focus Course. I’m using the Focus Course because it’s a real-life example that’s still very fresh in my mind.

I’ll first share about the real costs associated with the course, what I did to make the course as valuable as possible, and then where and why I landed on for the price.


For me, The Focus Course has two costs associated with it: the initial cost of building it and ongoing cost of running it.

I spent at least 1,500 hours (and probably more) of my own time to research, write, and architect the course. I also invested $9,600 to pay for the design, development, videos, editing, research material, and a few other miscellaneous odds and ends.

The second cost is the ongoing expense of keeping the course going. I pay for hosting the website (Flywheel), the webfonts (Hoefler & Co.), the SSL cert and domain registration, the video and media files (Vimeo Pro; Amazon S3), the forum (Discourse & Digital Ocean), the email servers (Mandrill and MailChimp), and the membership service and payment gateway (Memberful).

All in all, the services which power the Focus Course cost $211 / month to run. And the more people who sign up for the course, the more these monthly expense go up. This is certainly not a massive expense right now, but neither is it insignificant.

Additionally, I have to be able to pay a designer / developer for any updates, changes, or improvements to the website.

All this may sound like a lot when it’s listed out, but actually I think it’s quite reasonable. The moving parts all fit together quite nicely to make an overall awesome product that I’m proud of and that I believe is sustainable to maintain.


The big question I kept asking myself over and over was this: How can I make The Focus Course as valuable as possible?

In fact, it was this question that led me to build the course in the first place. As you may know, The Power of a Focused Life was originally going to be a book. But once I finished the initial draft of the book, and I began to read other books for research, I discovered that so many of important actionable items within these books were mostly buried underneath all the ideas and theory. I realized that my own book was suffering from the same fate, and so by asking myself how I could make the product more valuable I realized that it needed to be something other than a book.

Then, as the course began to take shape and I decided that I wanted to charge $250, I knew that I needed to build something that looked and worked like a $500 product and had the foundational content of a $1,000 product.

Basically, when people sign up, I want them to instantly feel as if they’ve already gotten more than they paid for. I want them to feel excited and refreshed. And then, by the time they finished the course, I want them to feel an even greater satisfaction — that they got what they were looking for and more.

It is critical to me that the value of the Focus Course be far greater than its price.

The foundation of the course’s value is, obviously, the content itself. There are 40 days of assignments and lessons, and if those 40 days don’t flow well and offer something of substance, then the rest doesn’t matter. And, fittingly, this is where I spent the bulk of my time and energy. Then, once I had the course outlined and written, I worked with nearly 100 “beta” testers to go through it and get their feedback on the contents alone.

The early pilot version of the course was ugly. And when I say “ugly” what I mean is “ugly.” I sent out ugly looking emails every day and I had a generic WordPress theme. It was just the raw content of the course with nothing to hide behind.

But once I knew that the content itself was right, then I got to work sweating the details.

And so, in addition to the content, there were a few other things I set up to add additional value to the course.

  • Design: I wanted everything about the course to be beautiful, readable, unique, professional, and responsive. Not only does a well-designed product feel more professional and high-quality, but I also wanted to use design as a competitive edge. There are other similar types of products out there and I wanted the Focus Course to be the best-looking.

  • Community: Having a thriving community forum that’s filled with other people going through the course is a massive value. It provides accountability, encouragement, help, and just a great sense of camaraderie.

  • All the little details: everywhere I could I tried to add fun extras. This includes a friendly welcome video when you first sign up, a welcome page and email that tells you everything on the website, personal follow up emails to check in on, an easy sign-up process with single sign on for the course and the forums, as well as some really fun easter eggs you naturally discover once you start the course.


One of the hardest aspects to building the Focus Course was coming up with a price. I went back and forth with all sorts of different numbers.

I wanted to charge an amount that was fair to those who bought the course — making sure the value given exceeds the price they paid. But I also needed to charge enough to make back the time and money initially invested, as well as being able to cover the ongoing costs of hosting the course.

Moreover, by charging a fair price, I can do more than just maintain the course, I can keep working on it and adding more value. I already have a clear roadmap for the next update.

I’ll also add that by charging a fair price relative to the content and commitment required, it means the people who buy The Focus Course have something invested in it. If I were to charge $5 then people would value the course as something about on par with a latte.

However, by charging $250, people see the course for what it actually is: something incredibly valuable that requires sacrifice. Which means those who do sign up are far more likely to actually to commit the time an energy needed to work their way through the 40 days.

You can’t buy word of mouth

When the value of what you’re selling is more than the price you’re charging for it, people who buy your product feel honored. (Conversely, if the value is at or below the price, people feel ripped off or cheated.)

When you sweat the details and add empathy, joy, and delight into your product then it makes people feel happy and excited.

And who doesn’t want happy, honored people as customers?

And Now For Something Completely Different

Wow. What a wild and awesome past few weeks. The Focus Course has launched (as you well know, haha), and now things return to their regular schedule. (Well, technically, they’ll return this coming Monday. I’ve got a birthday and a holiday weekend, so I’m taking some time off after today.)

Over the coming months I will be sharing a lot of the behind-the-scenes stories, information, and motivation about building and launching the Focus Course. If you have any questions for me that you’d love to see answered, please just email me. I’ve been doing this self-employed, work-from-home-as-a-full-time-writer racket for more than four years and I want to do what I can to encourage you that, yes, you can do your best creative work every day.

But today, I want to share something different. Simply a video of a man ironing a shirt.

Now, this is no ordinary video. This is one of my favorite YouTube videos of all time.

I can’t say exactly what it is about this ironing video that I love so much, but it’s just awesome.

Maybe it’s the meticulousness and skill with which the man irons that shirt. Maybe it’s the neat-freak in me loving to see that wrinkly shirt get ironed out. Or maybe it’s because this gives me hope that I don’t always have to be horrible at ironing.

Who knew that ironing could be a craft?

It makes me wonder how many shirts this man has ironed. Would he even tolerate the cheap Black & Decker iron and squeaky ironing table that are hiding in my closet feeling very insecure and inadequate at the moment?

The Focus Course is Now Available

Here it is. The Focus Course has launched and is now available for you to sign up.

The Focus Course is normally $250. But during the launch week, it’s just $199.

It’s 40 days and 5 modules. 18 videos. 75,000 words. Has downloadable PDF workbooks and HD videos. There’s a members-only discussion forum. You get lifetime access plus a money-back guarantee. And there are some awesome launch-week giveaways.

The Focus Course is for anyone who wants to increase productivity, personal integrity, morale, and overall quality of life. What sets the course apart is that it guides you in the implementation of these principles so that these topics go beyond mere head knowledge and into experiential knowledge.

If you’re ready to bring your life into focus, sign up here. You’ll get instant access to everything in the course right away.

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